by James Drew
I’ve pressed the palms of my hands deep into my cheekbones it hurts. Lifting my head, a blinding microburst of red dots scatter before me. Some pull their hair when they feel trapped, some drink. It’s how I sleep, express frustration, anxiety, indecision. I crush my face.
Clunk clunk, clunck clunk.
A train roars through, eleven cars and the engine lifting my head to attention. I drop my hands to the bench seat and spring to my feet. I don’t know what I’m thinking. It’s like being on the wrong side of a TV screen. This is someone else’s life. I’m just here to watch. The caboose disappears into the endless tunnel taking with it a lifetime of memories filled with friends and family. I’ve been here before.
Who abandoned me in a subway station? Looking around, I find no exit signs. Dredd fills my mind in a cold sweat. I have no way out. This must be a dream but it’s too vivid.
Nightmares are why I became a therapist. I lived with them growing up, barely able to sleep. I grew out of it by deciding my dreams don’t matter and it would be easiest to ignore them.
Patients waste many of their sessions recalling their dreams. I humor them a couple times, hoping their obsession will pass. Finally, I encourage them to understand they mean nothing. There is no storyline. They are random thoughts strung together by the sum of our repressed fears and insecurities.
I tap myself on the wrist. Normally that would trigger a leg spasm to wake me up. I’ve set up markers, road signs to prove that I’m dreaming. There are no white rabbits, no flying monkeys.
How am I lonely making a living by listening? My schedule is full of people who confide in me. Some struggle with drugs. Most struggle with the same insecurities that I do. Though I can’t admit to myself, I know that many of my patients count me as a friend.
Maybe next time it passes by on this side I’ll try to jump between the cars.
I graduated Highschool and left my hometown at sixteen. It wasn’t that I was extraordinarily intelligent as much as determination to get away from my childhood. The only person I ever liked was my therapist and my best friend: my dog Freddy. At twenty-two, I already feel life slipping away.
No! I’m going to get out of here! There is a world beyond the surrounding pitch-black tunnels! I know it!
It’s time to sit on my bench and plot.
Shoot for the apex between the engine and that first car. No, that’s dumb.
Stuck between four barren walls with only a broken clock and no one to talk to, I feel my soul slipping away. Few realize that most therapists are spiritual people. We understand the need for souls. Without souls not just is a person a hollow shell but that’s how they see everyone else.
I swear I’ll never feel alone in a crowd again when I get out of here.
I dreamed of working the railroad as a child. Anything to get away from the horrible abuse: the memories of my hometown. My father was a caring sober person. I could see my mom’s drinking problem that she blamed on her marriage to my father at her drunkest; sometimes even sober. My dad admitted she was right. A truck driver, he was rarely home so he warned me about a transportation job.
I loathe socializing with my colleagues; their smug callous attitude toward their patients pushes me further into isolation. I can’t participate in conversations making light the condition of medical mental health. I pity the mentally ill too much. The system is leaving them behind and I can’t stand it. I don’t dare express that. The increasing suicide rate; the active shooters; how much of it is a consequence of apathy: disregard for the ill?
I stand with every headlight.
I know train fifteen. It’s the one with the clanking, broken hitch. If I could figure out how to use that to my advantage, maybe I can get on board.
My patients often accuse me of not getting it. They take my objective answers to their pain as non-sympathy. I am trained to impart coping skills. I’ve learned the cure to insecurity is achievement. People crave pity as a placebo. I can’t give it to them.
One other thing….
There is no way, I have achieved my doctorate at twenty-two. How can I have a career of experience already?
Please stop! I don’t know who I’m screaming at. The passengers can’t hear me, and I see no engineer.
Again, I hear the clunk of a dozen cars. The engine’s light shines straight. If there’s a bend in the tunnel, it isn’t apparent. The cars coast through the station. I flail wildly, desperate for just one of the passengers to notice. One looks to me with black, empty eyes. I scream and wail my throat and lungs hoarse.
There is no way out of here! Stop! Send the word! Someone is stuck here!
I recognize the dim eyes, the lifeless stare of people slowly committing suicide. This is what I do for a living, isn’t it; observe people sometimes at their lowest?
An education in coping skills is failing me. I miss passing those skills to others, taxing as their problems are.
We get things done because we must. I’m in denial. I’m becoming complacent, accepting my life’s setting. This is becoming what as my depressed patients often call ‘my life’s story.”
Tending to my own feelings for the first time, I grope for the right questions. Objectivity is much easier from the outside looking out. Take yourself out of the battlefield and watch for a minute. My muscles shake. My skull rushes cold with panic.
You’re in your head! I say to myself, remembering why I am so alone. My head is my world.
I lay down on the bench for months trying to lose consciousness.
No… sleeping isn’t the answer. I’m losing my mind. The medical term is mania. My mind is spinning on all axes. I need to sit up and think this through. I’ve been dead, postmortem for months. I’m smarter than this.
The smell of stale urine and spilled alcohol permeate the air. I can taste death. I’ve never been in a subway station or smelled a human corps and yet both are starkly familiar. The stench of failed lives pushes in though my nose, into my mouth, brain, and stomach like an invading demon.
Is this a train station or a tomb?
If this is a final resting place, then why the train? There is no escaping death. I’ve told suicidal patients that numerous times.
The air is dry with deteriorating cinder that tastes rickety. No moisture has passed through this station since I was born, maybe longer. Plumes of dust flutter through the station rushed from the air current left in the wake of the train. Years of isolation teach a young man or woman with nothing to notice, to notice everything.
Four years of silence and my mind is buzzing like the sole light bulb above my bench. Others must have sat here before. Maybe I’m in limbo. I know this can’t be a dream. All my training tells me this is real. There is no such thing as limbo.
Let’s say this is Purgatory… even hell has other people in it! Jails have inmates. Years, I’ve searched the same four corners of this place, up and down. There are two places I’ve not tried yet. I look to the darkness to my left and my right.
Do I dare explore the tunnel? That’s smarter than most of the ideas I’ve come up with, but I’m doubting my decisions. If my world seems real but isn’t then it can’t be. My mom used to tell me that if I am the only person in the room with a problem than I am the problem.
What if I stand on the tracks?
The same morbid answer gushes from my eyes and ears. Technically it’s a rhetorical question.
What do I have to lose?
I’m just saying if, If I’m lucky, the engineer will be more likely to see me and say something when he gets back to the station.
I’ve heard the same question in my office. The patients look rickety, on the verge of capsizing. They put up a front for a few minutes but can’t keep it together. I note their eyes are black, lifeless. Assigning them homework, I admit they complete diligently. Their final time, I notice a significant weight loss. Their face pale, hoping weeping from the skin of their cheeks. They abuse themselves over the last week of their lives. I ask one last time their worst-case scenario. They don’t answer and I know suicide is imminent. There is little I can do even if they do answer. Even if I do insist on inpatient observation, they’ll be sent home in three days to fend for their own sanity.
I don’t talk about it at parties. I’m a punchline to my older jaded colleagues. Younge, idealistic, I don’t see myself as a copay collector. I can see and sometimes hear their laughter. I don’t see them as therapists, I see butchers, pushing meat through an insurance meat grinder. Losing patients to suicide is as common in this field as heart failure to a surgeon and I’m young and idealistic. My dad mentally hygiene my mother repeatedly to no effect. Maybe they’re right.
So, its settled. Even stuck down here, death is not a viable escape. I wasn’t planning on it anyways, but I wasn’t averse to it in the face of epic fail.
I return to the bench and sit. My days pass shaking the tip of one boot to the crack of the platform concrete.
God, I’m getting pissed.
Succumbing to tears I flop to my side in the fetal position on my only piece of furniture burying my face in the palms of my hands. Cars one through ninety-six have pass through at least three-hundred times. Going on twenty-seven, curling up on a bench becomes uncomfortable after a year. I turn, finding what I decided wasn’t possible.
The engine is parked on this side of the track, empty, with no engineer.
I stagger to my feet, falling face first. I can’t quite stand. I shouldn’t have given up. I shouldn’t have laid down. I know that now.
Please fate, forgive me.
My eyes are crushed, crossed from the empty pressure of the past year. The engine is now two, then three and back to one. My muscles gelatinous, I face plant into the pit, hitting my head on the running board.
It did help my eyesight. I squeeze them against my nose and shake my head as I push up. Reoriented, I step onto the wheel in front of the engineer car door. Still not ready for that move I face plant again. All that separates me from freedom is a jammed door. It may be too late anyways.
I look inbound to a hurtling spear of steel.
Common! Common! I clench my eyes, my entire face, shoulders, and anis, realizing I’m not getting inside the engine car.
My head whips back, eleven cars slamming into the back of the engine, hitching, clanking, and accelerating faster than a train can.
It’s car fifteen!
The hitch is loose. Light streaks around me, pushing into the darkness. I don’t know what I’m holding onto but it’s pulling fingers from my knuckles.
I’ll hold on forever; tuck and role when I get out, but my ride isn’t leaving me behind.
I wish I had known there are catwalks. Papers scatter like sage brush: beer cans and bottles bounce around, flitted by the air wake of the train. A mile into the tunnel shows me what could have been all these years. Where there is filth there is life. All this junk could have freed me years ago. We reach a bend! Another sign that this train goes somewhere! I am excited. My body frame flails away from the train.
I’d feel safer inside one of the cars cause if a train comes towards this one…
One bright, light, A blunt impact, then nothing. At least it’s over now.
My screams echo through the arched, dark tunnels. Patches of hair ripped out, corners of my skull are bruised and bloody. I’m still alive. Whyever I’m here, it isn’t going to allow me to give up. I’m here to get out of this maze. I am here for a reason.
Knowing that I am not here to die slowly or pointlessly rebuilds a little sanity.
The catwalk looks dangerous, but I can’t die so…whatever.
Mazes are usually a process of memorization, navigation, and elimination.
This one is a straight line with a train passing through that doesn’t stop. Maybe ‘maze’ isn’t the right word. I’ve tried this a few times in both directions. It is more of a gauntlet.
I had a life before this. It’s still out there! Don’t forget! Somewhere I’m up there living a life just like anyone. This is just a bad dream. None of this is real! None of it is real. Your real life is out there! This isn’t your life!
You had a life before this. It’s over. Forget about it. Someone else is living your life. You’re a fool, abandoned and forgotten. It’s the way it is! Accept it! You live here. Life is passing you by a hundred times a day.
This always happens when I don’t want to do what I know I must. I’m beaten and bruised because I keep trying. The best way to purge self-doubt is to keep trying. Two years of death and I’m well rested. Standing I realize that the bruises, the heavy lifting has made me cast iron strong. I feel solid.
Drip drip drip drip
Well, I’m not putting up with that.
My senses have been seeking any stimulation for so long that I jump to a change in anything. I know better than to try to sleep. Self-pity isn’t going to get me out of here. It won’t even pass the time! No, I must gather resources.
I’ve taught myself to see in the dark. I am blind in here but it’s a relief from the buzzing light of the train station. My hands, ears, and eyes scan like the sonar of a battleship.
My shoes are like socks after years of pacing and being killed by a train. The catwalk is a treasure trove of human decay. I feel so blessed and occasionally impaled.
Eyes can’t adjust to the complete absence of light. I’ve spelunked further into the tunnel than ever but still no other stations. There it is: A random lightbulb.
What happens if I pull it? I shrug shoulders, deciding to find out. Everything is numb, even my soul. Hardened, dead leather hands sizzles, twisting the bulb from its receptacle. Removed, I toss it into one of the beer cans. I’m headed back to see what I can make of everything I’ve gathered.
Years of neglect in maintenance reduces the cinder to dirt hovels. Tattered blankets, children’s toys, some clothing, but where are the people that lived in these holes? Moving closer, my hand glazes the head of a baby doll. Grabbing it to investigate, it crumbles to calcium dust in my hand.
That wasn’t a doll.
The light of an oncoming train reveals the skeletal remains of the family that settled and died here. Horrified, I back into the handrail that isn’t strong enough to support my weight. The headlight is bright in my eyes, but not for long.
Three miles out, I’ve built a flashlight out of beer cans, bottles, and the light bulb I found four years ago. Since then, I’ve found a pattern every few hundred feet. This was a town once. Hundreds of years, people have dug deeper and deeper holes into the weakened walls. Aiming my flashlight into the hovels I find more tattered blankets, children’s pajamas, teaming with bed bugs wrapped around clumps of dust.
Another recently dead body: I was never alone. Some of these people have lived in these tunnels, buried in darkness since they got here.
Remembering my mother’s last days when I was sixteen, I recognize the desperate, hopeless moans in the darkness. I stalk it with my flashlight, asking myself what is about to pounce on me. It was I who found her, Four Loco spilled on the carpet, a rubber band she must’ve stolen from a recent blood test wound around her arm and a needle hanging from her forearm. She died revealing to me her other demons.
It is human. A pump hangs from its arm like a parking boot. It doesn’t speak, only squinting in the pain inflicted by my flashlight. Shining it at the mechanism plugged into the person’s arm, I find blood is drilled like oil, replacing it with an unnatural substance. Horror rocks my soul as I reflexively point the flashlight back at the persons baggy, red eyes.
How can you let this go on? What are you holding onto?
It grabs my hand, pleading silently. I don’t know what to tell it. I don’t know how to remove the clamp, poisoning its mind. There is little flesh left on its face. It is walking dead, passed the point of identity.
I’m sorry. Looking toward the tube feeding it the poison I realize what it is pleading for. Its fuel is almost dry, and I suspect when empty, it will pump it will collapse its veins, leaving it without blood.
It lashes out desperately, grabbing me by the neck. The cloudy green fluid gone, little more than fumes in the tube: it is inhumanly strong. I land a strong right hook into its frail eye socket popping the eyeball loose. Unphased by its dangling eyes, it launches against me.
How can I get the drop on something with no feeling? It’s going to hurt, but I’ll have to let it get the drop on me. My next punch is a fraction of my full force and misses. It grabs me by the hips-as planned- and throws me against the handrail. It’s ancient, weak but I hope still blunt and sharp. It is.
Ripping the steel from the rail, I chop into its head with its next assault. Its pasty filthy brains drizzling down the cinder walls of its hovel, the monstrosity falls to its knees and then its shoulders.
That’s for my mom! I cry and spit into its new skull cavitation.
Years, I’ve wanted to do just that to the bastard that poisoned my mother.
I shake my head in disgusted, exasperated regret. Not just have I killed the only person I’ve seen in over a decade, but I’m not done with it. I don’t know what is hooked to its arm, but I know I’ll need it. This is the disgusting piece of flotsam that poisoned her. I chop off its pump arm with the blunt steel pipe then turn my attention to its intestines.
It was guarding a tarped pulsating lump. Moving closer I smell and taste iron. Whatever. Carefully, but angrily I rip the tarp with my pipe, finally uncovering something. A cocoon?
The nauseating yolk glows. Deeper, something swims. I graze my hand over its lumpy membrane urging whatever’s inside to come to the surface. Something greets me through the transparent womb. It’s a grown human being. Skin sluffing off before me, I realize this isn’t a cocoon.
That’s why the trains aren’t stopping! They only have one function. Delivering hopeless people like a flock of lambs to the slaughter. Frogs in a boiling pot of water. Poison fills their minds pushing them onto the trains to be deposited here. What does that have to do with me?
I drive the pole into the death sack draining the poison. Black goo dissolves the platform and the soles of my shoes. Its half-devoured contents spill out screaming onto the railroad track. In agony, what is left of them stands, or crawls, groping for me in anger. I want to back pedal, but I stand my ground, swinging my pipe like a baseball bat.
Their leprous flesh abandons their muscle tissue. Feet and legs break. Heads pop open like watermelons on the metal grated catwalk. Poison’s left them with less than they know. Still, I must scoop up as much grizzly death as possible. I have plans for the methane.
I don’t bother to put all of them down. Anger pushes my pace back to the base, the train station. These monsters took my mother from me: left her family with nothing, then evacuated when she passed. My heart and mind burns. I’m carrying a bag of squirming body parts over my shoulder, their slimy blood dripping down my back. It feels great.
Trekking further, I’ve found a circuit board. I’m not an electrician but I’m sure I can figure it out. Sparks flair, splashing me in the face when I rip out the deep-rooted cords. Now it’s time to check out this toolbox and maintained locker: Rachets, wrenches and dynamite.
Opening the rusted green door, I find her. She doesn’t pause, diligently stirring a cauldron. Her hair is black and gray; her skin dead and green, the way I last saw her. The air is bitter like dead leaves and urine.
I’ve wanted to confront her for the selfish way in which she left my father and I behind, then I remembered a conversation between my father and me. I asked why and when she started drinking. Pain flooded his eyes. He loved my mother despite herself. He’d decided in his heart that it wasn’t her fault.
My mind flashes back to the baby’s skull that collapsed in my hand.
I wasn’t an only child? I ask myself.
My dad shakes his head and walks away. He’s trapped in a cage of loss and abandonment. I grab his hand, keeping him in the room I demand to know his worst-case scenario. He hugs me assuring that he loves me.
My mother’s frog tongue sample’s the dark green cocktail from the cauldron. Her face is soft and full as it was before alcohol devoured her. Light shines from her eyes, turning that crystal shade of blue I remember till about five. She liked dresses at a time when they were going out of style in exchange for short skirts and pants. Now her face shines as I remember her glassy complexion.
Dipping my head over the steaming pot to determine what’s rejuvenated her I find a face. Multiple faces howl in objection to their fate, their brains float in the vat. She isn’t stirring a soup, she’s prodding skulls for their brain matter. The effects of the chemicals worn off immediately, her beak nose returns to an ugly snout. As quickly as she became angelic she returns to a demonic witch.
It’s time to let her and my father go. None of this is my fault, not even theirs. I light the dynamite’s wick. Throwing it into the closet and slamming the door the last I hear of mother is her death scream. I dive but the detonation still throws me against the ceiling, and the door onto the opposite catwalk. I’d rather not imagine what remains inside the locker. I pick up my wiring and stomp back to the train station.
Fifteen years down here, killed over a dozen times, dozens of broken bones, and I’m starving but I can’t die of that either.
My makeshift flashlight is croaking, and my only other light source is flickering. I’ve made myself a pick, chopping my own hovel deep into the cinder. I’m getting out of here and stopping this cycle singlehandedly.
Squeak squeak squeak.
The squeaks grow more rampant every day. No trains pass through for untold hours, maybe days. My pile of fuel shrinking but I’ve been so busy.
I scream in desperation, rushed by flies, roaches and rats. Eaten through numerous corpses, hordes of pestilence jump onto my arms and legs, ripping my clothes, gnawing into my muscles, breaking my bones and digging into my skull. I am still alive as they penetrate my intestines, eating me alive, piercing my skin from the inside.
My heart races. Slinging drool, I fight. Blue shirts wrestle me to bed and pin me, stabbing me with a sedating needle. Years I’ve yearned for other human beings only to vomit hatred and anger. I was so close to escape. I’m thirsty, dilutional and exhausted.
“Let me out of here!”
“Hold on just a little longer, Honey.” The woman’s Sicilian nose cheeks calms my hopeless horror. Her slender hand strokes my brow. “It’s almost over. You aren’t alone.” Her angelic voice slows my dangerously high heartrate. I don’t understand what’s happening, but my face cradled within her flowing black hair, holding her own sorrow within her sweet hazzle eyes, I know I love her.
This can’t be real.
This isn’t real.
“I love you.” She says kissing me softly with her tiny, ever pursed lips. Our tears merge as I fall asleep.
I’m getting out of here and I’m going to take this railroad down. This is the day of reconning. This is what I was born to do.
My train is seconds away. I’ve tested the chemistry; freeing dozens barely stuffed into venom traps. Now it’s my turn. I’ve done my part and I’m ready to rejoin the world. After today, there will be no more underground poison railroad. When the train crosses through the arch into the train station seventeen years of cruelty and isolation will be over. The cycle stops here and now.
Looking around for a moment, I reflect all the guilt and regret of my life. I’m not proud of everything I’ve done down here, but this…
Chug clunk chug
This is it. I’ve strung electric wires from the elbow clamp to a stick of dynamite laid at the entrance. This time the poison only goes out, fueling my freedom.
Train fifteen Emerges from the arch. I flip the switch and dive deep into my hovel. The engine jumps up, jammed by the following car. Crushed like an empty beer can, they collapse the exit arch.
Fire plumes from the engine throwing the door paneling that I couldn’t open years ago towards my hovel, shielding me from the next blast. The third car digs into the platform annihilating the bench. The fourth car jumps over it, pressing the station back, the ceiling up, raining dirt. Shrapnel scatters and piles of dirt spills. Steel screams from the fifth and sixth cars pile up. Scorching fire presses against the door panel, bringing down piles of dirt I fear will bury me alive forever.
I burry my hands in my face, crushing my cheekbones. The carnage is hot, overwhelming. There are only a few more trains to go but I I laugh as the sun pushes through the smoke, escaping into the streets. Endless cars crush, accumulating, pushing through century’s old cinder. The force of hellfire weakens allowing me the strength to resist. I pull my hands from my face and cast off my shield like bed sheets just in time to see the caboose climb a ramp of steel and dirt. One last blast of dragon’s splays my arms and legs wide open, throwing me into the wall. All I can see if fire. Tears flow from my eyes. Sweat stream from my pores, cooling me. Upended, up ended the cars piles drives the earth, scattering the town above in a shower of dirt and pavement.
Smoke evacuates with the stale air of the Station. Patting the dirt off that protected me from concussive fire I push, coughing through the smoke and straggling flames. The blue sky greets me for the first time in seventeen years. Scarred and bloody, stitches protrude along the right side of my head making me Frankenstein’s monster.
Climbing a twenty-foot ramp of dirt and rocks stepping onto the ground, a throng of witnesses, human beings stand in shock and awe. My lungs suck in mother nature with all their might, and I finally leave this cruel alternate reality behind passing through a tunnel of light.
I can hear and smell the crackling of eggs in the center of the house. Pulling my hands away from my face, I kick off my sheets and stretch with all my might. I smack my lips, I blink my dimmed eyes, and sit at the kitchen table. A plate of pancakes, eggs, and sausages, topped with syrup and butter clanks onto the table before me.
I’d lost my identity, even forgotten my gender in all the years of lost friends and family. I’ve failed so many that trusted me with their sanity but walked with as many through their darkest days as a friend and doctor. I’ll never leave a soul in those dark tunnels.
“Good morning.” That soft angelic voice says. My wife kisses me gently, having held me through a night of leg spasms and screams. I know now it was she who coached me though a year of sickness and a lifetime of trauma and pain.
“Good morning.” I say, looking to my son and daughter in loving relief.
“Pleasant dreams?” she says, having braved the night and the last seventeen years at my side.
I take her hand, never loving her more.
“Pleasant?” I say, thinking one last time of my mother and father, deciding I would never ignore my dreams again. “They weren’t boring.”
I was never alone.
Author James R. Drew lives in Rochester and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.